YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) — A memorial park and a hiking trail were dedicated Tuesday to 19 elite Arizona wildland firefighters who died in 2013 in a brush-choked box canyon while battling one of the state's most devastating wildfires.
Relatives of the Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighting team gathered at a trailhead for the somber ceremony dedicating the site as an Arizona state park, where Gov. Doug Ducey said the 3-mile trail and memorial would serve as a lasting tribute to the fallen firefighters' heroism.
"May this always be a sacred place for this community and for this state to honor the lives of those who died protecting us," Ducey said. "And may it always serve as testament to the danger firefighters everywhere face every day. We will never forget."
Only one member of the team, a lookout, survived the June 30, 2013, fire after shifting winds trapped the firefighters near the small town of Yarnell, in central Arizona. It was the deadliest day for U.S. fire crews since 9/11 and the worst for wildland firefighters since the 1933 Griffith Park fire of Los Angeles, which killed 29.
Dan Parker, whose son Wade died in the fire, said his return to the site was moving and that he wants to bring others there so they can remember and honor his son. The 320-acre park opens to the public Wednesday.
"Our hearts are grateful for everything that everybody's done for us and the fact that the state would put a state park here for a place for us to come and reflect and just come be with our son," said Parker, a retired firefighter. "Because this is where he spent his last day."
The park was dedicated after Arizona's Legislature spent $500,000 in 2014 to buy the land and the nearly 3-mile trail was built from a state highway to the spot where the flames trapped the firefighters.
The trail itself is lined with memorial plaques for each firefighter. It zigzags from the highway up a steep slope to a ridgeline, then follows the ridgeline to a spot with a view into the canyon where the firefighters were killed.
The trail then descends into the canyon to a memorial site with 19 wire baskets filled with rocks marking the locations where flames overcame the crew. A flagpole is set in the center of a memorial site.
On the day they died, the firefighters were stationed in a relatively safe position on a ridgetop.
But for unknown reasons and without notifying anyone, they moved down the mountainside through an unburned area where they were trapped by a wall of flames when winds shifted the fire toward them.
State workplace safety regulators blamed the firefighters' deaths on the Arizona Forestry Division, saying it put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled crews out earlier.
A state investigation found that fire officials lacked key personnel to battle the Yarnell fire at critical moments. An earlier investigation commissioned by the Arizona Forestry Division found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures.
The state paid a dozen families who sued over the deaths $50,000 each and promised to change how Arizona responds to fires and trains its fire crews. The survivors also received insurance and other benefits.
The fire also burned 127 homes, and people who lost them have sued the state.
Ducey in an interview encouraged people to hike the trail, saying "it's strenuous and it's long, but you'll really learn the stories of these young men."